Imagine getting a personal letter direct from Donald Trump. It’s on nice paper and offers you an exclusive opportunity to learn how to get rich in real estate – directly from the master and his chosen apprentices.
Instead, plaintiffs in a suit against Trump University, say they got little other than huge tuition bills and a chance for a photo with a life-size cutout of Trump himself.
These are just some of the details journalist Steven Brill uncovered while looking through the litigation surrounding the now-defunct Trump University. Trump denies any wrongdoing in the case.
Brill’s investigation appeared in Time magazine in the middle of November, and didn’t receive a lot of fanfare. But the details are striking and Brill sees clear similarities between how Trump University was run and how Trump the candidate is running his presidential campaign.
What follows is an interview with Brill, which has been edited for length and clarity.
What was Trump University and what did it promise students?
The evidence in the case – even the evidence submitted by the defence, by Trump – indicates it’s a scam. The core of the case is that Trump sent these personal letters and emails to people saying, “Would you like to be my next apprentice?”
A personal letter from Donald J. Trump sent to his favourite 10 million people. It promised he would be personally involved and that these would be his secrets of how to make money in real estate by flipping foreclosed properties and stuff like that. [Students would] learn from his personally hand-picked professors at this university.
The plaintiffs sued him personally as well as sued Trump University, because Trump University is just a shell. The defence moved to get [Trump] removed from [the suit] because the defence said he didn’t really didn’t have anything to do with Trump University, which totally contradicts all of the marketing. But the judge wouldn’t let that happen. So he’s personally on the hook as well as Trump University, LLC. Trump owned 98 per cent of the shares of the company.
Who attended these courses?
Middle-class and lower-middle-class people, during desperate economic times were being offered the secrets of Donald Trump’s success. You could argue that the real secret of his success was that he was born the son of Fred Trump, so that he inherited hundreds of millions of dollars. But that’s not what they emphasised here. They were targeting, with really elaborate detailed marketing gimmicks, exactly the people who are now voting for him.
The letters offered a free two-hour seminar about how to make money in real estate. So people who would go to these were largely retirees, retired firemen, sanitation men, cops. You’d go to the free two-hour seminars. But according to the scripts that were written by Trump and his people, the whole purpose of the two-hour seminar was to upsell you into a [$1,495] one-day programme, the whole purpose of which was to upsell you into the [$34,995] program.
What did people end up getting?
It was elaborately detailed. He is a good manager. His companies pay fine attention to detail and the details here, according to the documents, were how to bait and switch these people from the free two-hour seminar up to a $35,000 one. Even in the script, they would tell people during a break to call their credit card company and get their credit raised. They said that you’re going to want to get it raised so that you could make an investment. In fact, the investment they were going to ask you to make was in – guess what – a $35,000 Trump course.
When it comes time for him to be sued, and when the press asks him about these suits he says 98 per cent of the people filled out feedback cards saying that they loved the programme.
There are two problems with that. The first is that they were asked to fill out feedback cards by the people who were teaching them while [the instructors] were looking over their shoulders while they were filling them out. They were providing feedback for the free programme. They obviously liked the free programme because that was what made them sign up for the programmes that cost money. It wasn’t until they went through the $35,000 programme and realised they hadn’t gotten rich. That’s when they started to go to lawyers.
Now thousands of people are suing him. He claims they give refunds. A third of the people [who took the pay courses] asked for and were given refunds. If 98 percent were satisfied, why would a third of them be getting refunds?
Do you see similarities to between what happened at Trump University to what’s going on in the campaign?
The marketing material said, The smartest people are going to be doing this for you, it’s going to be great, you’re going to be a winner. It’s exactly the same marketing cadence and pattern as the presidential campaign. The difference is that people were tapping their credit cards out for $35,000 dollars.
Senator Marco Rubio woke up to the idea that the way to question Trump’s credentials is to look at how has he helped or has not helped the very people whose votes he seems to be getting. This is by far the best example. A massive marketing campaign, just like a presidential campaign, and a judge compared it to selling snake oil.
If Trump is the nominee, the case will have an impact. This trial is now scheduled for the summer and this judge has said he’s not delaying it.
“The article is not by any means a balanced account of the case. [Trump] was the owner and appropriately involved in that capacity. Other highly qualified people were running the school and they did it well. The facts of this case will disprove all of the plaintiffs’ claims and accusations,” one of Trump’s attorneys, Daniel Petrocelli, said about both Brill’s article and the case in general.
Jason Fields is the editor of Reuters Analysis & Opinion section.